The Lieutenant of Inishmore is a lighthearted political satire prominently featuring four murders, two toenail-pullings, one near-miss nipple amputation, two cats' brains, six punctured eyeballs, many severed limbs, and something like nine gallons of blood. It is a Grand Guignol explosion of death, violence, and bodily fluids that fuses big laughs with big-picture politicking. There are moments during its onstage detonation when it is unclear whether we should think, laugh, or gag.
This is the kind of happy confusion GableStage exists to create: comedy that is drama, jokes that are statements, brutality that is charming. Which means playwright Martin McDonagh is something like a gift to GableStage's executive artistic director, Joe Adler. Just like Joe, McDonagh is smart, sick, and funny, all heart and entrails. Counting Lieutenant, both of GableStage's best productions from the past year have been McDonagh gigs. The other, The Pillowman, was a dark tale set in an unspecified police state in which a writer is brutally tortured because the child murders depicted in his stories have begun taking place in the real world. There were shades of history in that piece — of the imprisonment of the Marquis de Sade, of Oscar Wilde's courtroom defense of The Picture of Dorian Gray — but its central questions were abstract, dealing with brotherly love, sacrifice, and art. The Lieutenant's concerns are more grounded in the real world, even while the play itself is vastly more absurd.
The grisly chain reaction of violence and murder in The Lieutenant is set off by the death of a pet on a lonely road somewhere in the Aran Islands on an unspecified date in 1993. In the opening scene, Erik Fabregat's long-haired, terminally befuddled teenage Davey and Ken Clement's loutish Donny are staring in terror at a dead black cat lying on a kitchen table. Davey insists the cat was dead, just lying there in the street with its brains oozing out, when he found it. Donny would prefer to believe Davey killed the cat. He wants someone to pin the death on, and with good reason. The cat belongs to Donny's son, Padraic (Todd Allen Durkin), a terrorist so violent and bloodthirsty that the IRA wouldn't take him. Padraic cares about only two things: a free Ireland and his kitty, Wee Thomas. Of course, tending to one necessitates ignoring the other, which is why he has entrusted Donny, his pa, with the cat's well-being while he's off bombing chip shops. Donny knows that unless something very weird happens, Wee Thomas's sudden squishing will spell doom for all involved.
The Lieutenant of Inishmore
Through September 9. Written by Martin McDonagh. Directed by Joseph Adler. With Stephen G. Anthony, Ken Clement, Todd Allen Durkin, Erik Fabregat, Scott Genn, Daniel Gomez, Paul Homza, and Kim Morgan. GableStage at the Biltmore, 1200 Anastasia Ave, Coral Gables; 305-445-1119, www.gablestage.com.
Donny decides not to deliver the bad news all at once. He contacts Padraic on his cell phone and informs him Wee Thomas is looking, well, poor. Padraic, who is at that moment torturing a petty drug dealer he has suspended from the ceiling (Paul Homza, looking appropriately nervous), goes all to pieces. He frees his quarry and promises to rush home immediately on the very first ferry.
Anybody who has been watching Durkin's remarkable string of manic performances over the past year will quickly get the feeling this part was written especially for him. It wasn't, but that doesn't matter. Few actors in the history of the trade could toggle ideology-fueled bloodlust and boneless, face-crumpling grief with such facility, or have so much fun doing it. When he storms into Donny's house the next morning, only to discover a living orange cat that Davey and Donny have covered in black shoe polish in an inane attempt to replace Wee Thomas, Durkin springs into sudden violence with terrible glee on his face — precisely the expression one would hope to see on someone who could be driven to multiple homicide by the death of a pet. A great deal of The Lieutenant's fun factor is found in the anticipation of awful carnage, and in knowing that it will come courtesy of someone so flagrantly, loudly deranged as Mr. Durkin.
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Despite these ominous beginnings, things don't work out the way one would expect. There is carnage aplenty, but it sneaks up from weird angles, and this is where one can feel the churning force of McDonagh's mutant intelligence. Wee Thomas's death, we learn, was a political killing — an attempt to get Padraic to lower his guard. It seems there is internecine war among the members of the Irish National Liberation Army, and Wee Thomas was but a pawn in their game. The INLA thugs, played by Stephen G. Anthony, Scott Genn, and Daniel Gomez, are nearly as mean as Padraic. So is little Davey's kid sister, Mairead (Kim Morgan), a spunky, punky 16-year-old with stars and clover in her eyes and a vicious aim with an air rifle.
When these people come together in Donny's little house, they trade a great deal of revolutionary blather before proceeding to blow each other's brains out. It's interesting to note how little any of it has to do with the English, or with economics or religion or anything one would expect James Connolly's spiritual descendents to discuss. These rebels are disorganized; they nitpick about animal rights and splinter groups splintering off of splinter groups, and about whether petty drug dealers have any place in postliberation Ireland. The story's two unarmed characters, Donny and Davey, are the stand-ins for the nonpolitical working people of the country, eternally bullied and cowed by the ideologues allegedly fighting on their behalf.
The fun and affection with which all of this is written and performed means GableStage's Lieutenant is, above all else, a love letter to Ireland. The fact that everyone in the play is either a bully or a sheep is an indictment. No matter how much he loves his parents' country, McDonagh has his gripes, and he knows how to voice them.
There is a moment near the end of the play when two survivors of the last act's gratuitous slaughter, surrounded by dismembered corpses and reduced to taking orders from a gun-toting 16-year-old girl, witness a healthy cat wander into the room. The two men begin talking quietly about all the trouble felines have caused them of late, and quickly decide this cat deserves to die. When the men declare their intention to kill it, it is very nearly the point of the whole show — a dumb and brutal reaction against powerlessness precisely like all the other explosions of dumb brutality to splatter the stage over the previous two hours. It is a clear distillation of the mindset McDonagh must see at the heart of much of Ireland's grief over the years, and everybody else's too.